DENVER – Child-welfare officials Tuesday told state lawmakers that without additional resources, problems will continue within the troubled Human Services Department.
Department of Human Services Director Reggie Bicha spoke during a meeting of the Legislative Audit Committee in which officials with the agency provided an update after scathing audits and evaluations last year.
Perhaps the most significant audit came in October 2014, when state auditors revealed deficiencies with investigations conducted by the department. Many of those concerns played out during hearings this year in the Legislature. Lawmakers raised questions concerning oversight of screening and assessing child abuse and neglect allegations.
A performance evaluation from August 2014 also highlighted concerns, including a lack of control over the administration of psychotropic medication to youths in corrections facilities.
Bicha offered remarks to lawmakers Tuesday after a rare letter of no-confidence sent to Gov. John Hickenlooper in May by 84 of the Legislature’s 100 lawmakers suggesting that the governor might consider a change in leadership. Members of the Joint Budget Committee recently sent a separate letter, asking questions related to concerns over management. Since those communications, Hickenlooper has stood by Bicha.
The human services director told lawmakers Tuesday that his department has complied with recommendations made by state auditors. But he believes that without additional resources, he will be back before lawmakers answering for additional problems, especially in terms of investigating reports of abuse.
“I want to distinguish that there’s a difference between complying with an audit recommendation, which we’ve done our very best to do; that doesn’t mean that we’ve fixed the problem,” Bicha said.
He pointed out that the system continues to struggle, highlighting that counties have failed to close investigations by the statutory requirement of 60 days.
“The need for additional caseworkers is imperative to helping us get over the hurdle,” Bicha said.
The Legislature this year approved 100 additional caseworkers, but the department says at least 400 more are needed. They plan on asking lawmakers next year for additional resources.
The La Plata County Department of Human Services met the required 90 percent closure rate for all months reported except one, according to Lezlie Mayer, director of the department. Because the county’s assessment numbers are low, one or two cases can cause the department to be below the required threshold.
“Being below this threshold does not mean children are unsafe, it means the children have been seen, and there are unfinished requirements in the investigation,” Mayer said.
Colorado launched a statewide child-abuse reporting hotline Jan. 1. Since then, La Plata County has had a 19 percent increase in the number of referrals compared with the past five years. Last year, the department received 990 referrals; 282 were accepted for assessment, and 72 were founded for child abuse and neglect.
Of the 100 new caseworkers approved by the Legislature, La Plata County received one position.
“There are just more and more demands put on caseworkers with all the requirements and all the work that has to be done,” Mayer said. “It’s just important that we continue to get these new positions so that we can continue to have the staff to manage the workload.”